Author Marilynne Robinson on the Meaninglessness of Secularism


The world is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.
—Psalm 24:1

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.
—Matthew 10:29

I will pause over the word secularism because I don’t know how it should be understood in a Christian context. In contemporary use it means the ground gained in society and culture by agnosticism or atheism as religion recedes.

Historically it has meant the dispossession of one religious system by another, notably Catholicism by Henry VIII’s Church of England. It is true that Henry won the support of peers by giving confiscated holdings to private individuals, a part of the process of shoring up royal dominance over the church which he and many others justified on religious grounds. It is also true that during the Reformation, again on religious grounds, Catholic art was destroyed or painted over by Protestants who felt iconography encouraged forms of worship that amounted to idolatry. However regrettable the destruction, this was no more secularizing in our sense than was the Catholic destruction of Wycliffite Bibles. This is to say, in neither case was disbelief a factor.

Secular is a term used within Catholicism to distinguish the world from the church. “The world” has had strongly negative connotations at various points in Christian history, particularly during the Middle Ages, but the influence of the biblical insistence that God made the world and that he loves it seems to me to be very strong among the religious traditions now. Many modern denominations have defined themselves for centuries against the belief that the sacred is especially localized in shrines and sanctuaries, or that the presence of God or of faith in God can be inferred from the number of crosses and pious billboards to be seen along the highways.

Typology was or is one way of understanding and experiencing an articulate presence of God, the Creator pervasively present in the natural world in what he gives us to understand through it. This again raises questions about the notion of the secular, the worldly, as existing in opposition to the sacred. If the world is the Lord’s, if it speaks of him, if it is sustained by him in every moment, then, granting the historical importance of the idea of secularism, I cannot in good faith proceed as if it has meaning for me, or as if I find it at all appropriate as a term of judgment brought to bear against our period or any other.

We presume to know more than we can know. In periods and places where religious doubt is criminalized, unquestioning faith is likely to appear universal. Where religious faith is treated as naive and intellectually indefensible, few will confess to it. Where it truly is naive and intellectually indefensible, those who can’t identify with it are often treated as having actually rejected faith, and may believe this of themselves.

So let us call this inability to know the state of our fellow’s soul a veil dropped down between his or her sacred inwardness and the coercive intrusions to which the religious and the anti-religious are equally tempted. If the fate of souls is at the center of the cosmic drama, is it difficult to imagine that it will unfold, so to speak, in a place set apart, a holy of holies—that is, a human consciousness? Where better might an encounter with God take place? If God is attentive to us individually, as Jesus’ saying about the fall of a sparrow certainly implies, then would his history with us be the same in every case, articulable and verifiable, manifest in behaviors that square with expectations? Would it be something we should be ready to talk about to pollsters or journalists?

Perhaps the real lack of faith in modern society comes down to a lack of reverence for humankind, for those around us, about whom we might consider it providential that we can know nothing—in these great matters that sometimes involve feigning or concealment, that are beyond ordinary thought and conventional experience, and that can in any case be minutely incremental, since God really does have all the time in the world. Perhaps it is a gross presumption to try to imagine a God’s eye view of things, but I can only think these encounters, every one unique, must be extraordinarily beautiful. If it is hard for us to believe that the God who searches us and knows us also loves us, perhaps we should learn to be better humanists.

Luke concludes his genealogy with Adam, whom he calls “son of God.” Paul calls Christ the second Adam. Our universal ancestor is also humankind, both in our mortal singularity and as a species. Typology in the classic sense might trace out the inverse symmetries of Fall and Redemption.

I would rather think in terms that are not quite so literary, that perhaps extend the meaning of the words type and antitype. In 1 Corinthians Paul says, “the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”

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SOURCE: The Christian Century
This essay was Marilynne Robinson’s presentation at a session this past spring at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta on theological imagination and secularization.

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